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Chapter 2: Culture

CHAPTER 2 CULTURE Learning Objectives After reading Chapter 2, you will be able to:

1. Define culture in a way that is useful to compare and contrast different cultures. 2. Understand the concept of cultural knowledge and five of its key components. 3. Describe why most anthropologists believe that “race� is a cultural construction, rather than biologically determined. 4. Discuss the evidence for the origins of the human capacity for culture. 5. Analyze the relationship between cultural knowledge and the behavior of individuals. 6. Describe why cultural and biological differences between human populations vary independently. Chapter Outline

I. Introducing Culture A. Key Features B. Mental Components 1. Cultural Knowledge C. Behavioral Components 1. Patterns of Behavior II. Defining Culture A. Shared 1. Cultural Identity 2. Subculture B. Socially Learned 1. Enculturation or Socialization C. Knowledge D. Patterns of Behavior E. Material Culture III.Cultural Knowledge A. Norms B. Values C. Symbols D. Classifications and Constructions of Reality 1. Classifications of Reality 2. Cultural Construction of Reality E. Worldviews IV. The Origins of Culture V. Culture and Human Life


Chapter 2: Culture

VI. Cultural Knowledge and Individual Behavior A. Is Behavior Determined By Culture? 1. Cultural Determinism B. Why Does Behavior Vary? VII. Biology and Culture A. Biology and Cultural Differences 1. Biological Determinism B. Cultural Universals Chapter Summary Within anthropology the definition of culture includes almost every aspect of a people’s way of life. Culture is the shared, socially learned knowledge and patterns of behavior that are unique to a group of people. Culture is essential for healthy development of individuals, and it is also the key to adaptation to our environment. Anthropologists use the term culture to emphasize a people’s unique customs and beliefs. Culture is comprised of mental and behavioral components. Mental components include beliefs about gender and religion, for example, and manners and moral judgments. These are termed cultural knowledge. Behavioral components are the patterned ways of behaving, or cultural norms. Culture may be shared by a small group, or a group that shares culture may be very large and widely dispersed. A single nation-state may include any number of different subcultures. People define themselves in part according to their cultural identity, which may include a shared identity based on nationality or some other shared characteristic. Distinctions between subcultures are somewhat meaningless if the groups share many similarities. Members of a group learn their culture through enculturation or socialization. Anthropologists today reject biological determinism because genetic differences do not account for cultural differences. Members of a culture share knowledge that is meaningful to others in the group and is adaptive to the physical and social environment. Behavior within a culture is patterned, and expectations vary according to one’s identity, and the situation or context. Five basic elements of cultural knowledge are: norms, values, symbols, constructions of reality, and worldviews. Race is an example of a cultural construction. It is based on perceptions shaped by culture and history. Different cultures also have differing conceptions of time. Culture cannot exist without language, so the origins of culture probably run parallel with the development of the capacity for language. Objects that have no apparent value as tools also indicate the development of symbolic culture. Prehistoric paintings and other objects of aesthetic value indicate that humans had the capacity for culture as much as 80,000 years ago. Culture is essential for humans; it provides the knowledge necessary for adaptation and survival. But culture is not all powerful or completely deterministic. Culture shapes individuals, but individuals also shape culture. Members of a culture do not all behave in exactly the same manner. Individual life experiences, as well as genetic inheritance, also influence behavior.


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Key Terms culture cultural knowledge patterns of behavior cultural integration cultural identity subculture socialization or enculturation role material culture

norms values symbols classifications of reality cultural construction of reality worldview cultural determinism biological determinism cultural universals

Suggested Supplementary Lectures Definition of Culture. Present a variety of definitions of the word “culture.” Why does culture have so many different meanings? Compare and contrast some of the meanings of culture. Are there any similarities among the meanings (e.g. to nurture or tend). Are different definitions simply referring to the different components of culture? Culture and Neanderthals. Present the evidence of expressive culture among the Neanderthals, including portable art objects, flutes, and apparent burying of the dead. Some argue that Neanderthals had the capacity for verbal language. In addition, develop the competing theories that explain the disappearance of the Neanderthals. What role, if any, did culture play in their disappearance? Culture and Nonhuman Primates. Discuss the cognitive capacities of monkeys and apes. The potato washing in Japanese monkeys is one famous example of social learning that is still debated. Chimpanzee mothers may exhibit teaching their infants the correct techniques of cracking open palm nuts with stone hammers. Students are also amazed at the ability of chimpanzees to use symbols and other properties of language. The experiments done with Kanzi, the bonobo chimpanzee, are very interesting to go over. Perhaps similarities between chimpanzee or non-human primate “culture” and human culture are not too surprising given the close degree of shared genetic material between chimpanzees and humans. The Importance of Culture. Discuss the effects of symbolic thought in humans. For example, how has symbolic thought helped us in adapting to the environment? It is often stated that human cultural transmission of adaptations is much faster than genetic adaptations. Is this evidence that human culture transcends our biological heritage? Has symbolic thought played a role in reducing human biological diversity? Humans are a single species with an unusually broad global distribution compared with other animals. Meaning Behind Behavior. Cross-cultural misunderstandings can occur if individuals assume that any given behavior has the same meaning universally. Give examples how similar behaviors might have different meanings (an affectionate pat on the head of an American child is received as disgusting by a Balinese child), or how different behaviors can have similar meanings, such as different ways to show respect (one sits lower than an African emir, but one should stand in the presence of the President of the United States). The Importance of Symbols. Most anthropologists agree that the human capacity to symbolize—to attach arbitrary meanings to objects, events, and so forth—makes culture possible. Devote part of a lecture to how culture—as humans learn, share, and experience it—relies on the ability to understand and interpret the world in terms of symbols whose meanings are socially learned. Give some examples of verbal,


Chapter 2: Culture

graphic, and behavioral symbols, and have the students suggest some of their own. Discussion Questions  Ask students to provide examples of norms that are commonly violated and of situations in which the behavioral expectations of one norm conflict with those of another. Engage students in a discussion of the extent to which norms govern individual behavior, and the conception of norms as a constraint on behavior. 

One way to get the students to understand collective understandings is to ask them what people might mean when they wink. If you’re theatrically inclined, you can illustrate yourself. For your own inspiration, you might want to reread Geertz on this subject (“Thick Descriptions” in The Interpretation of Cultures). Ask them how they “know” the different meanings, and how they think they learned them. Have they ever misinterpreted a wink? Share examples of the meanings of winks in other cultures.

Ask the students to make a list of their personal values. Ask them to make a separate list of what they think the values of other Americans are. Have them bring both lists to class and compare the lists to one another. How much discrepancy is there? Use this discrepancy, or lack of it, to discuss what it means to say values are shared. If there are foreign students, compare their lists to the lists of other students’ personal values and to the list of what students think are other American values. Discuss any discrepancy—what does this say about how other peoples perceive Americans? About the reality of their perceptions? Discuss any similarities—are there any values that are universally human

 Engage students in a discussion of the different role of biology and culture in daily life. Biologically, humans need to eat and sleep, to eliminate, and to have sexual intercourse in order to reproduce. How are these biological needs shaped by culture? Bring to the discussion examples of cultural variation in these activities. Ask students to try and explain the variation. Are all cultural differences obvious adaptations to a specific environment? InfoTrac Exercises 1. Values are one of the components of cultural knowledge. Search InfoTrac using the keyword “values”. Review the titles of the articles that result from your search. Create categories for the ways in which the term “values” is used. If you cannot tell from the title what the meaning of values is, open the link and read the abstract. Do you think that all of your categories are related to the anthropological meaning of values as a component of cultural knowledge? How do the meanings differ? Why, do you think, do anthropologists think of values differently than do others? 2. Use “culture” and “animal” as keywords and search InfoTrac for articles relating to the question of whether or not animals other than humans have culture. Several of the articles in the results deal specifically with culture among chimpanzees. Review the abstracts of these articles. Do you think chimpanzees have culture in the same way that humans do? Why or why not? What other animals are described as having culture? Again, do you think theirs is the same as human culture? If not, explain how they differ. 3. Search InfoTrac using the keyword “sociobiology”. Review the list of citations that result and look for titles that indicate a discussion of controversy relating to sociobiology (Edward O. Wilson is a name associated with controversy). Summarize the primary criticisms of sociobiology that have come 11

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from the “left” or more liberal academics, and those that come from the “right”, often religious fundamentalists. Much has changed since Wilson published his synthesis of sociobiological research, claiming that natural selection was an important explanation of human behavior. What do you think? To what extent do you think human behavior can be said to be driven by genetic predispositions? 4. A search of InfoTrac using the keyword “worldview” results in too many citations to adequately review. Start with that term; next, limit your search by using a geographical area (e.g. Asia) or a social construct (e.g. race, gender) or some other delimiter. Find several examples of peoples holding different worldviews, different ways of defining social constructs. Summarize your findings and be prepared to discuss them in class. Internet Exercises

1. Anthropologists use the concept of culture to call attention to distinctive features of particular groups of people. An example of a distinctive cultural practice is Japanese Keigo or honorifics. Visit this web site for information about Keigo, including video clips that demonstrate keigo in different situations:

2. Visit this web site to explore the worldview of the Hopi: Learn about how time, space, and color are incorporated into the Hopi worldview. What is the role of corn? Of reciprocity? In what ways is the Hopi worldview significantly different from that of the mainstream American culture?

3. Search the Internet for the web sites of the primate research centers located in the U.S. Explore these web sites looking specifically for information about how primates learn. Do other primates learn via social learning, as do humans? Note examples of social learning and bookmark the site so you may share it with the class. What other types of learning do primates engage in? Relate your findings to the discussion in the text discussion of social learning through enculturation. Based on your research, do you believe that other primates have culture? Why or why not? Summarize your research, including your sources.

4. Becoming Human is a web site designed to promote greater understanding of human evolution ( Visit the web site and use the learning center to explore the emergence of bipedalism in human evolution. What role did bipedalism play in the emergence of culture? Search the site using the key word “culture” and review the results for information to share with the class.

5. Visit the PBS web site for the broadcast series Evolution ( At the bottom of the page, select FAQ and explore the responses to frequently asked questions. One of them asks if culture is the result of evolution. Read the response and be able to explain the relationship between evolution and culture. Are there elements of human culture that you would find it difficult to view as a positive or evolutionarily advantageous adaptation?


Chapter 2: Culture

Anthropology in the News 1.

“Robot Invasion Welcomed in Japan,” by Hiroko Tabuchi. New York Times, September 13, 2010 ( scp=2&sq=japan%20culture&st=cse) The author presents the theory that robots are not viewed as threatening in Japan, as they are often depicted in American film, due to the Shinto religion that “blurs the boundaries between animate and inanimate.” The article reports on the Japanese obsession with robots. It relates to the discussion in the text of cultural knowledge, specifically worldview, as well as cultural behavioral patterns. For discussion: What do you think is the basis for the American view of robots as potentially dangerous and threatening? Can you think of media representations of robots as helpful and friendly? Malevolent and scary? What is the context for each type of representation? If you have knowledge of earlier film depictions of robots, these would be interesting to present for discussion of changing views of technology.


“My bright idea We can only ever have 150 friends at most: Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar tells Aleks Krotoski why even Facebook cannot expand our true social circle: our brains just aren't big enough to cope,” by Aleks Krotoski. The Observer, (England), March 14, 2010, Pg. 26. Evolutionary anthropology studies how humans came to be as they are today. One question discussed in the text is the degree to which biology provides the basis for cultural differences. In this article, biological limits on our ability to have extensive social networks are explained. For discussion: If humans are limited by their brain capacity to being able to network effectively with 150 friends, at most, what are the implications of this for social networking sites such as Facebook.? What is the purpose of having hundreds of friends on Facebook, if we are not able to form effective relationships with that many people? Is there reason to believe that ability to social network more broadly could be considered an evolutionarily advantageous trait?

Films and Videos Ax Fight, 30 minutes, 1975 (Cultural Practices, Behavioral Patterns) This film is part of the classic series produced by Napoleon Chagnon and Timothy Asch about the Yanomamo. The film captures on film conflict between two members of different villages. The violence is explained by the filmmakers with reference to relationships of kinship and descent. The film relates to the discussion of violence as a behavioral pattern among the Yanomamo. Available from DER ( Characteristics of Culture, Lesson 2 of the series, Our Diverse World, 30 minutes, 2008 (Culture, Characteristics of Culture) This segment uses the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, to explore the nature of culture and how cultures are studied. In addition to visually defining the characteristics of culture, this segment explores how culture changes in response to outside forces. A bio-cultural approach is also explained. The series is available through


Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, 9e

Instructor’s Manual

Dead Birds, 85 minutes, 1965 (Cultural Practices, Behavioral Patterns) The classic ethnographic film depicts the life of the Dugum Dani of New Guinea, prior to extensive contact with the industrialized world. The cultural practices of Dani warfare and magic are featured. Available from Documentary Educational Resources (DER) ( Franz Boas: 1858-1942, 59 minutes, 1980 (Cultural Constructions, Race) Part of the Odyssey series produced by PBS Associates of Boston. The film focuses on Boas’ work in the Pacific Northwest, and his contributions to the understanding of human difference as cultural, not biological. The film explains how Boas challenged the prevailing cultural construction of race. Available from Documentary Educational Resources (DER) ( Holy Ghost People, 53 minutes, 1967 (Cultural Practices, Subculture) This is an ethnographic film depicting a small sect of Pentecostal Christians in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, who practice snake handling. The film was made by Peter Adair and is now a classic ethnographic documentary. The film may be downloaded from the feature films section of the Internet Archive. (


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